Hyacinths And Thistles
By: Eric G.
It's hard to hear these songs without Stephin Merritt's baritone droning alongside. His lyrics, equal parts sentimentality and acerbic wit, draw as much attention to themselves as his tinny arrangements do, and his voice seems inextricably bound to their performances. The 6ths is more of a studio project than a band as Merritt writes and performs all of the music while enlisting singers of varying degrees of fame to sing. This is The 6ths second album in five years, but where Wasps Nests showcased the cream of the indie rock crop in 1995, Hyacinths And Thistles focuses more on random European chanteurs and chanteuses than the American underground.
Merritt's melodies always sound at once familiar and dramatic. Other voices usually ruin it for me in when it's a Merritt original, but with The 6ths I can appreciate the outside interpretations partly because I’m braced for it and partly because that’s the whole point. Momus delivers Merritt's live staple "As You Turn To Go" with unusual restraint and delicacy. American punk legend Bob Mould sounds more honest and vulnerable on "He Didn't" than he has on any of his punk-infused incarnations over the years. Merritt must take extreme pleasure in juxtaposing unlikely scenarios (like the former guitarist from Husker Du crooning over a piano ballad).
Sixties folkie Melanie sounds like a cross between Eartha Kitt and Marianne Faithful on Merritt’s Broadway-esque “I’ve Got New York.” “Just Like A Movie Star” could easily be an outtake from The Magnetic Fields’ Get Lost with its swooping keyboards until the very French Dominique A lends his fey and heavily accented vocals to what is a typically gushing love song. Merritt also makes no bones about playing with gender and sexuality, having men sing about men and, of course, women about women. The best example is the sugary sweet Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto cooing gently on “Lindy-Lou”, in which Merritt no doubt relishes her cliched Japanese pronunciation of “really” (“reery”).
The highlight of Hyacinths And Thistles, however, comes from two Englishmen who are from two very different musical backgrounds. Neither is a stranger to bombast, but The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon doesn’t have the new wave punk background of Gary Numan. Hannon’s dry rendering of “The Dead Only Quickly Decay” is, dare I say, better than what even Merritt could do with it vocally. The dark techno sway of “The Sailor In Love With The Sea” is tailor made for Gary Numan. Numan, of course, has been enjoying a resurrection of sorts with two reverent tribute albums and Fear Factory’s cover of Numan’s classic “Cars”, and, while his presence here may seem like some sort of exploitative bone-throwing, Numan sounds amazing.
Merritt also, evidently, loves to force all these egos to sing in styles that the public might not expect. Only a fan would be able to identify Gary Numan’s inflection because he’s singing in a much higher range than usual. The same goes for Momus and, certainly, for Bob Mould. Merritt’s sense of humor and sinister wit knows no bounds either. Odetta’s “Waltzing Me All The Way Home” sounds like a bad karaoke joke but through sheer songwriting strength remains listenable- even enjoyable when you listen to the lyrics: “you’ll find a lover who looks like your mother/for heaven sakes don’t be alone.” The 6ths may seem like a vanity project on the surface, but Merritt’s raw musical genius discredits any doubters of his intentions.